Monday, March 15, 2021

Everything is Grace? Reflections on Grace and Freedom

"Everything is grace," Saint Therese famously said. Indeed, that is the Gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ.

This doesn't mean we don't "have to do anything" in our relationship with God. We respond, act, and even "merit" the fruit of our actions, but all of this (and much more) is the gift of grace through Jesus Christ. God inspires, sustains, and brings to fulfillment every act that we perform that takes us forward along the path of salvation.

God is the source of all that is good. He gives us our good actions, but in such a way that they are really our own. We are not puppets. We are free human persons who freely love God because He empowers us to love Him and "moves us" in the very depths of our freedom. The Holy Spirit anticipates, awakens, inspires, enlightens, draws, heals, elevates, sustains us totally. He precedes us, touches our hearts, mysteriously works within our humanity, calls us and begins to change us, "sowing the seeds" and "cultivating the field" of our hearts, and He does this in the lives of all human beings, including the billions of people who do not (yet) "know" Jesus explicitly. God's goodness is always "at work" - He draws us according to His mysterious plan of wisdom and love, and then inspires us to "cooperate" with His work, so that the infinite victory of Jesus on the Cross and in the Resurrection might fill and transform our lives, and be the vital center of the whole world and all of history.

There is much that is mysterious in this plan of God for every human person in Jesus Christ. Jesus is, after all, the Mystery drawn close to our lives, the Mystery made flesh, dwelling among us. The grace of Christ is superabundant, and the wide world and its many peoples strike us with awe and wonder at the unfathomable ways Our Lord works in every human heart through the inexhaustible love of His Most Sacred Heart.

If we really love Him, we want to share in His work. We want to witness to Jesus Christ, with humility, with reverence for every person, for peoples and cultures, for all that is holy and good in all the religious traditions, and for the many efforts throughout history to articulate the cry of the human religious sense (already stirred up, drawn, and helped in countless ways by God's grace). It is love that moves us to cry out (with our voices, with our lives) that Jesus is the gift of God, the source of all grace, the embrace of God who opens His arms to each one and to every one, who makes all things possible.

We who are Catholic Christians ought to meditate on the mystery of God's gratuitousness, which is beyond all measure. We must not shy away from the awesome mystery of God's grace.

I would like to propose a few considerations:

Everything really is grace. God accomplishes our salvation and sanctification in us and with us. He raises us up through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit according to His gratuitous love, freely adopting us as His children and giving us a participation in His own life. He calls the human persons He has created to a life that eminently fulfills and validates all our fundamental desires for truth and goodness, even as it draws us "beyond" this world to a new creation that "eye has not seen, nor ear heard," in which God will "be all, in all." 

He forms our very identity as persons in light of this destiny, for we are not merely hypothetical realizations of some abstract concept of "human nature." We are members of the human family who enter into the concrete reality of human history that unfolds according to God's wisdom. This entails the tragic mystery of our own indigence, our disoriented humanity, but God is here for us with His ever-greater love, giving Himself to us in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus. And through Jesus in the Spirit, He gives us new life - He prompts, initiates, empowers, and sustains our loving response to Him. 

Everything is grace. Even our response to grace is the work of grace giving us supernatural freedom and its acts in such a way that they are truly our own, so that we really participate in God's love and become like Him and totally abandoned to Him even as we become most fully "ourselves"!

Everything is grace. This is a mystery which we cannot understand, but which we can contemplate in such a way that our confidence in God's love for us grows even as we attend to the responsibilities He entrusts to us in this life.

It sometimes appears, however, that we forget the full measure of what God's grace means, and we live according to a reduced conception of the depths of God's love for us and the dignity of our vocation.

We Catholic Christians can give the impression (and sometimes we even think, in the practical order of things) that grace is a sort of deal where God does half of it (or even most of it) but we have to "come up with something in addition" to what He does - we have make some radical contribution (however small) from ourselves alone, from our own power that we possess "autonomously." In the drama of salvation (as well as "good works"), we can be tempted to think that there is something we do "without God," something that fundamentally originates from us and us alone. If we "do our part," then God's power can and will "help" us.

This way of speaking, especially in the form of exhortation, is not uncommon in pastoral theology and homiletics. It aims to address the freedom of the will in its practical dynamics, the psychological reality of how this mysterious thing called freedom - my freedom - engages, chooses, and carries out actions that are truly my own actions.

The Catholic understanding of freedom, however, is embedded within the context of the whole mystery of salvation as conveyed by the complete, integrated witness of Sacred Scripture to the love of God, the human beings He has created, and the person and redeeming work of Jesus Christ - the witness that has been handed down from the Apostles, and that continues to be preached and given and lived in the Christian community today.

It takes a lot of theology to unfold what this means for human freedom. Suffice it to say that omnipotence does not cancel out human freedom, or render it "less free" or less "my own." On the contrary, Divine omnipotence is what makes human freedom possible, what makes my freedom possible, and what makes it possible for my actions to be truly "my own" - it is what makes the very reality of "me" in such a way that I am truly "myself." Clearly, much more needs to be said, and we learn a great deal from theology. But at the end we still find ourselves intellectually in the presence of a luminous paradox, which we recognize as the mystery and the ineffable splendor of superabundant Love only by means of a living, trusting, ecclesial faith.

As Catholic Christians in today's world, however, we can very easily become removed from effective contact with the environment generated by the witness to salvation, the reality of Jesus Christ living in His members through history and in the here-and-now (even with all the sins, mistakes, negligence, and stupidity of these members). He has promised to be with us always, and that we will always find Him here - the Crucified One, the Risen One who saves us. Here is where we are called to "live our faith." If we become distant from the "gathered people" called together by God (the ekklesia, the "church") and entrusted by God with the witness of salvation, we will be like fragments, like fishes out of water. We may identify ourselves as Catholic (even with a measure of intellectual coherence) but still be in some manner "distanced from" the life, the nourishing vitality of this "church," Christ's Church, Jesus Christ living in His Church. In this fragmented condition, our understanding and our words about our faith can subtly slip out of the context of the whole.

Not surprisingly, our mentality can thus easily reduce the mystery of grace and freedom to the idea that God does "some of it" or "most of it" but that we have to do "our part" - indeed that we have to do our part "first," fundamentally, exclusively from our own solitude, "before" God can do anything for us. We may live this mentality as an attitude toward life even if we intellectually reject what it expresses - which is in fact the heresy of "Semi-Pelagianism."

I think that this weakens the confidence, the hope, the trust of many Catholics, because they feel like they don't have that self-initiated, self-sustained "oomph" of will or energy that they think they need in order to summon from within themselves that radical "first step." In fact, they don't have the "oomph" to conjure God's love.

The good news is that our God doesn't need to be "conjured." He is already here. He has come to be with us, to make us like Him. He is "already" loving us, and if we even begin to turn to Him it is because He has already called us. Everything is from Him.

Everything is grace, even our (truly free, truly "our own") response to grace. God wants to give us the capacity to love Him and the realization of that capacity. He enters into every aspect of our lives by taking flesh. Jesus. 

The grace and salvation of God reach our lives in and through Jesus. Whenever we speak of these things we always must look to Jesus and come back again and again to Jesus. We are adopted sons and daughters of the Father IN HIM. We depend totally on Him, Jesus Christ.

What can radically "originate" from a human person "independent" of God? Nothing. No thing.

I can't adequately explain the mystery of how we freely "cooperate" with grace. We cooperate with grace by means of grace - by the working of the creative and transforming power of the Infinite Love of God in us, empowering us and effecting our action, which is precisely what makes our cooperation really free and really our own.

I don't know how we even exist - how we have "being" in a way that is totally dependent on God and also truly "our own" - there is no adequate metaphor for the primordial mystery of a created person, much less the grace-given "meritorious" (praiseworthy) acts of an adopted child of God --well, the images in the New Testament are best.

What is maybe a bit easier to see is the one "way" that we really are radically, independently "free" - without God we can do nothing, which implies an awful possibility. What if, in the presence of God, solicited constantly through life by His Infinite love, embraced by Christ on the Cross with the redeeming and transforming power that wills to generate a new freedom within us, we do... nothing?

Freedom implies that we don't "have to" love God. We can "non-accept" all this tremendous grace and love. Let us not think that saying "God takes the initiative" means that we should just sit around and do nothing, waiting for God to "show up" in a way that impresses us. He is already here and already at work within our hearts. We have no excuse to "do nothing." Of course, no one can entirely negate themselves, which is why our "non-acceptance" of God's love in Christ leads us to the wild effort to flee from Him and plunge into the nothingness of sin.

We may try to identify ourselves with the nothingness of our non-response to God's grace, but God remains omnipotent. He can create (or recreate) "something" where before there was "nothing." He is the Lord. Nevertheless, if we really are trying to be frozen in our nothingness, being recreated as something new is going to be a momentous change. God is not a bully. Are we going to "allow Him" to change us?

We have to (inadequate words here) "let" God change us, "let" Him empower us, etc so that we live more and more in Him. This is important, because the self-shriveling unfreedom of sin ultimately brings home to us the reality of our powerlessness and we may be tempted to despair. If I feel stuck, lost, afraid, frozen, "unwilling," what can I do?

PRAY. "Lord give me the desire..." "Jesus, give me the desire for the desire..." These things are mysterious, but prayer begins because we allow ourselves to be drawn into the relationship. Jesus will give us what we ask for. The Father loves us and is always tending us for our good even long before we think of praying. Be He doesn't force us. We can "stay closed" to God's love. We can say "not" to all the ways Divine love pours out to open us up. This is the mystery of sin, of iniquity. 

The negation of God's love: our desperate world seems dominated by it. Our own hearts have so much need for light to reach dark and shadowy places within them. Sin and death are a terrible weight, and a pretense of meaninglessness that brings misery and destruction. Still, God's love wins the victory through Jesus Christ. His grace is the gift of healing and redemption, salvation and transformation to eternal life.

There's so much that needs to develop from these thoughts, but there they are for now.